MAUMEE, Ohio — The lady in the dark Jackie Onassis glasses, the star of this week’s worthy-of-Hollywood video in which she improbably cast herself as the champion of everyday Americans, really blew it when she walked out of the Chipotle here Monday.
Incredibly, there happened to be an everyday American right there, right behind the counter when Hillary Rodham Clinton collected her chicken burrito bowl and iced tea, then jumped back on Interstate 80 bound for Iowa and some stunning stagecraft.
“If that was me and I was running for president, I’d be out there talking to people,” Charles Wright told me after his staff served me a delicious lunch at that Chipotle on Wednesday. “I would assume she would not be running around incognito. I’d like to know her plan to get the economy firmly back on track. I mean, what is it?
“I would like her to be honest with me.”
But Hillary had no time for Wright. She didn’t know the 29-year-old was born in California, moved here in 1999, took classes at the University of Toledo, works 50 hours a week, and now manages more than 30 people for a restaurant chain. He will gladly talk your ear off.
So just hours after slipping her presidential announcement over the digital transom Sunday night — the Hallmark-card-like ad filled with cute kids, new parents, and hopeful retirees — the previously high-flying Clinton who promised to fight for the common folk left the Chipotle in Maumee without a word.
“She wasn’t very polite,” Wright said.
Near as I can tell, her trip across the Midwest was interrupted at a gas-station pit stop where she posed for some pictures. Oh, and I think she must have waved from the back seat of her shiny black van to some trucker driving an 18-wheeler somewhere because she casually mentioned that when she finally reached Iowa.
So I decided to do what Hillary didn’t — stop along the way, get off I-80 here and there, and listen. I wanted to learn what she would have if her first effort to connect with voters had not been first vetted by her staff, not pre-screened, not a stage prop for the massive billion-dollar electoral apparatus that formally whirred to life this week.
People love Hillary. People hate, I mean really hate, Hillary. The economy is better, but troublesome economic cracks remain. The gap between the super-rich — say people who write books for seven-figure advances and give speeches for $200,000 a pop — and the working poor is growing bigger. The worry is real. And it’s everywhere.
College costs are obscenely high. And the corrosive and poisonous brand of politics practiced in Washington has spawned disgust and cynicism that runs broad and deep.
“People talk politics and I run the other way,” said Justin Fredenburg, 36, who works for a local utility company in Indiana.
I talked with Fredenburg on Wednesday in tiny New Carlisle, Ind. — “A nice place to visit, a great place to live” — where Doug Selner at the downtown True Value Hardware helped him load lumber into the bed of a truck.
Indiana is a reliably red state. When Barack Obama narrowly carried it in 2008, he was the first Democrat to do so since 1964. And the more Selner talked, the more I could perhaps understand why Clinton breezed by without so much as a word.
“If she’s after regular folks, she should come to the small towns and talk to us about how to fix our economy,” said Selner, the 51-year-old True Value manager. “It’s all a political show for her. She goes after the money and forgets the little people. We need more jobs. We’re spending too much money. We need to take care of our own first. Hillary sets my teeth on edge.”
After hours and miles through undulant farmland, rolling corn fields, and to-the-horizon vistas dotted with smokestacks, silos, and weather-beaten barns, I stopped in Ottawa, Ill. It’s the site of the first Lincoln-Douglas debate, where in August 1858, 10,000 people heard the two candidates make their cases for a seat in the US Senate.
A block away from the town green, where statues of the 19th-century candidates have been erected, Mike Gazaferi stands by the grill of the Bee Hive coffee shop he’s owned for 28 years. A single customer nurses a cup of coffee at the seven-stool pink Formica counter. Gazaferi’s stack of home fries sits uncooked. Early morning traffic outside is light. There are more than a few adjacent vacant storefronts along the block.
“What we need is Bill Clinton back,” Gazaferi tells me. “He was good for business. That’s what we need.” And Hillary? “Turn off your tape recorder,” he says — and then waves me away.
Around the corner, Barbara File is slipping an insurance payment through the mail slot of her agent’s office before heading back toward I-80 where the 63-year-old works at a gas station.
File voted for Hillary Clinton over Obama in the 2008 presidential primary. But she follows politics closely and says Clinton has to re-earn her vote this time. Government spending is out of control, she said. File thinks the country is on the wrong track. She’s sick of the “backstabbing and the garbage” of our political discourse. And, like Gazaferi, she likes the idea of Clinton’s access to a key adviser: her husband, Bill.
“When her husband was president, we had fantastic times,” File said.
Moments later, Nympha White is emerging from morning Mass at St. Columba Catholic Church and seems poised to cancel out any vote File might cast for Clinton.
“People from around the world are not looking up to us the way they used to,” said White, who was born in the Philippines and is now a religious education teacher and a member of a diocesan council. “Taxes are increasing, and a lot of our businesses are going outside of the country. We need to invest in businesses that hire local so people have jobs. You can look at the downtown. There are a lot of empty places.”
Next door, at the local visitor’s center, Dennis Bute, 69, knows about those jobs. He ran a small office-supply business with 14 employees and paid them above minimum wage. And his take on our national discourse serves as the connective tissue, the common thread of the voices I heard along I-80 this week.
“I honestly think the country is broken and I’m worried about it, to be honest with you,” Bute, a Clinton supporter, told me. “It is very dispiriting. The rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer. There are a lot of people at McDonalds and Walmart trying to support a family on not a lot of money.”
That was part of Clinton’s message this week. “The deck is stacked in favor of those at the top,” she said, delivering the message in Iowa to three people in a coffee shop at one stop, seven community college students at another.
Clinton has been first lady of the United States. She served in the US Senate and as secretary of state. By now, she’s certainly more Oscar de la Renta than Oscar Mayer. To cast herself now as the homespun champion of the little people has more than the whiff of inauthenticity.
Eventually, she’ll have to pull off the highway, where she’ll meet real people with real questions that haven’t been screened and pre-selected. People like Lisa Depies.
Depies is the editor of her hometown weekly newspaper, the Geneseo Republic, which bills itself as the municipality’s oldest business, where the two-person editorial staff operates out of Spartan offices just off Main Street in western Illinois near the Iowa line.
She’s ready with questions about those 30,000 e-mails that Clinton sent from a private server, e-mails now under State Department review. And she wants to know who Clinton might have in mind for secretary of agriculture. John Deere’s world headquarters is nearby. And so are a few gun manufacturing firms, so she’d like to ask Clinton about gun control. And then there are questions about trade with China and ethanol subsidies.
In other words, real questions. Real concerns.
“I want public officials to be forthcoming,” Depies told me. “It’s always important for politicians to see the small towns.”
Hillary Clinton did that this week in Iowa. But long-time Iowans can see through the I’m-one-of-you message. They’ve seen it before. Eventually, the crucible of the campaign will have its revealing effects.
“A first lady and secretary of state isn’t going anywhere except in a caravan,” said Nancy Pardun, who was born in Clarion and grew up in Des Moines. “She can’t meet the little people. It’s kind of fluff. ‘Oh, look at me. I’m just like you!’ No, she isn’t. And she doesn’t want to be.”
I met Pardun on the doorsteps of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in West Branch, Iowa, where the 31st president of the United States was born in a 14-by-20-foot cottage in 1874 and where he was laid to rest in 1964.
Eight months after Hoover took office, Wall Street laid its famous egg, sparking the Great Depression.
No master of stagecraft would be caught dead there, and I’m sure Hillary Clinton didn’t even wave when she whizzed by on I-80 the other day.